Chronicles and tales describing the history of the Sultana, accounts of the passengers and crew in their own words, taken from the Washburn Investigation and the trial of Captain Frederick Speed are all detailed in this section. To view additional stories, click "View All Stories" at the bottom of the page.
Nathan Wintringer was the chief engineer on board the Sultana when she carried her precious cargo home towards the North. He was on duty when a leaky boiler was patched at Vicksburg and although the boiler mechanic wanted to cut out the ruptured part of the boiler for a permanent repair, Engineer Wintringer talked the mechanic into hammering down the bulge and placing a temporary patch over the leak. Fortunately, it was not the patch that caused the explosion of the boilers on April 27, 1865.
On May 16, 1865, Chief Engineer Wintringer was interviewed by Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, who was investigating the Sultana Disaster. Here is his statement:
When the Sultana left New Orleans I was her Chief Engineer. The boilers were in perfect condition and continued so until we were about ten hours run below Vicksburg, when I discovered a small leak in the larboard boiler at the third sheet from the forward end, a few inches below the horizontal diameter of the boiler where it was exposed to fire. The outer sheet at the lap had cracked a little at the longitudinal seam between two or three of the rivets, and this was the cause of the leak.
From this time we worked along slowly until we reached Vicksburg, where the services of a regular boiler-maker were obtained, who thoroughly repaired the boiler by riveting in a patch some eight inches broad by twenty-four long. The old iron which was a little bulged was cut out below the seam and the patch was secured by a line of rivets at its upper and lower edges and at its ends. I think the patch was about five-sixteenths of an inch in thickness; I saw the work after it was done and was satisfied that it was a good job; and I believe the boilers were just as safe then as before the leak occurred. From the time of leaving Vicksburg until we reached Memphis we carried about 135 lbs. of steam, and during this time there was not the slightest sign of giving way at the patch or of leaking.
The boat laid at Memphis about four or five hours and put off about two hundred and twenty-five hogshead of sugar which were taken from the hold, and I think we put off some hogs there too. I noticed the boilers particularly at Memphis and they seemed to be in good condition. We kept up from ninety to one hundred pounds of steam while there. I was on watch when we left there, and continued in charge of the engines until we stopped at the coal-boats, about half a mile above the city landing, where I was relieved by Mr. Samuel Clemens, the 2nd Engineer. At that time the boilers were, as far as I could judge, all right.
I was asleep in my berth when the explosion took place. My room, which was about mid-ships on the larboard side of the texas, was not at all injured, and I do not know how much, if any, of the texas in front of my room was injured, but most of it behind my room appeared to have sunk down on the cabin or lower deck. I remained on the boat only about twenty minutes, in which time she was pretty much enveloped in flames. To save myself from the fire I jumped overboard with a window-blind in my hand, on which I floated until I reached a piece of stage plank. With this I picked up four soldiers and all of us but one man who became too exhausted to hold on, were saved.
Mr. Clemens was a first-class engineer, some years older than myself, and we served on the boat as equals. He was perfectly temperate, and always attentive to his duties. I talked with him about the patch and he agreed with me that the boilers were as safe with it as before the fracture took place. With my present information I can only assign as the probable cause of the disaster that the boat was top heavy and was consequently inclined to careen over from side to side and in this way the water has been thrown from the upper boilers to the lower ones, exposing some parts of the upper ones to be heated, which parts gave way, where the water was suddenly brought back to its proper level. The water in the boilers sometimes “foams” as it is called, giving the appearance of plenty of water when there is little or none, but I never knew it to occur in the boilers of the Sultana.
The boat was frequently careened to one side or the other, even before the sugar was taken out, but never so much so as to cause the water in any of the boilers to be so much lowered as to expose any part of it to the fire unprotected by water.
I spoke to Mr. Clemens [the second engineer] in Memphis after the disaster as to the cause of the explosion. He said he could assign no cause for it; everything, he said, was right; there was plenty of water in the boilers, and there was not an extra pressure of steam. I had this conversation with him a short time before he died. I don’t know what the habits of Captain [J. Cass] Mason were as to temperance. My impression is that he was not strictly temperate. I never saw him under the influence of liquor. He was considered a very good captain; was careful and was very popular. The man who repaired the boilers at Vicksburg, I have forgotten his name, said that the repairing was a perfect job, and that the boilers were perfectly safe. He gave me no caution about carrying steam, and nothing was said that I heard about putting in more sheets on arriving in St. Louis.
I heard but one explosion before I left the boat, but there was a good deal of the boat remaining when I jumped into the water. I can remember nothing more bearing on the matter, and I do not think the cause of the explosion can be conjectured until the boilers can be inspected.
Taken from: Wintringer testimony, Washburn Inquiry, May 16, 1865.
Born in Lynchburg, VA around 1831, James Cass Mason was brought to Missouri as a child and grew up beside the river. As a young adult he began work as a clerk on steamboats on the Missouri River and eventually became master and/or owner of a few boats. On November 27, 1860, he married Rowena Mary Dozier, the daughter of a well-known steamboat magnate, and eventually took over as master of the steamboat Rowena, owned by his father-in-law and named after his wife. In Februaty1863, during the middle of the Civil War, Mason and the Rowena were stopped for a routine inspection by the crew of a Union gunboat. Eventually, it was discovered that Captain Mason was carrying 2,000 pairs of pants for the Confederacy and the Rowena was seized as contraband of war. Initially imprisoned, Mason was eventually released but his steamboat was not. On April 18, with the Rowena now in government service, the boat hit a snag and sank about 30 miles below Cairo, IL. Although interaction between James Cass Mason and his father-in-law came to an abrupt end, the young captain landed on his feet and soon became master of the Belle Memphis. Always a daredevil, on May 9, 1863, Mason entered his new steamboat into a three-way race against the steamboats City of Alton and Sultana. Although Mason and his Belle Memphis won the race, Mason was impressed enough by what he saw in the Sultana that when she came on the market in March 1864, James Cass Mason was one of the purchases, buying a one-quarter share in the boat. With the Union capture of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, MS and Port Hudson, LA, the Mississippi suddenly ran “unvexed to the sea” and hundreds of steamboats began making the lucrative run from St. Louis to New Orleans. Over time however, there was more competition than commerce and James Cass Mason, now the captain of the Sultana began hurting for money. After a couple of mishaps with the Sultana, which needed costly repairs, Mason was forced to sell off most of his controlling shares until he had only a one-sixteenth interest in the steamboat. On the morning of April 15, 1865, Mason and the Sultana were at Cairo, IL when the telegraph reported that President Abraham Lincoln had been murdered in Washington, DC. Grabbing an armload of Cairo newspapers, Mason carried the first news of the assassination down the Mississippi River, thus becoming the unofficial “messenger of death.”
While stopped at Vicksburg, MS, Captain Mason was approached by Capt. Reuben Benton Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Thousands of recently released Union prisoners of war, fresh from the prison pens at Andersonville, GA and Cahaba, AL, had been collected outside of the city and were about to be released and sent home to the North. Hatch knew that Mason was hurting for money and offered him a deal. The US Government was paying a stipend to steamboat captains willing to carry loads of prisoners upriver. If Mason would agree to give a kickback of the stipend to Hatch, the quartermaster would agree that when Mason came back upriver, there would be at least 1,000 paroled prisoners waiting for him. Naturally, Mason took the bait.
On April 24, the Sultana returned to Vicksburg. Although one boiler had sprung a leak, which required immediate repair, Mason sought out Captain Hatch about his promised load of paroled prisoners. Through misunderstanding, unscrupulous activity, sheer ignorance, and wanton incompetence, close to 2,000 prisoners were crowded onto a boat legally registered to carry only 376 passengers. In the end, even Captain Mason, who would benefit from every single person placed on his boat, protested when the load became too great.
For two days the Sultana steamed upriver. All the time Captain Mason and his crew warned the prisoners to stay in one place and not move around, fearful that the Sultana would capsize or burst her boilers. After unloading over 135 tons of sugar from the hold, the top-heavy steamboat started upriver. At 2:00 in the morning of April 27, 1865, the boilers on the Sultana suddenly exploded, tearing a massive hole through the center of the upper decks. Within minutes, the boat caught fire and over the next five hours burnt to the water’s edge before sinking a few miles above Memphis.
Captain Mason was uninjured by the explosion and immediately began tearing off pieces of the wreck and throwing them into the water for people to float upon. He was seen helping people on all three decks and was last seen at the stern of the lowest deck, still tossing pieces of wood into the water. He was never seen to leave the wreck and his body was never recovered. James Cass Mason was just 34-years old.”